I’m more than a little confused about the education policy of the Conservatives in Wales. At one level, I welcome the statements made this week that they don’t want to follow the policy of the English Government in reinstating grammar schools, and that selection at 11 is divisive. But how much of a change in policy is this in reality?
In 2013, they proposed reintroducing the “best elements” of the old grammar school system into Welsh education, but without re-introducing the 11+ exam. The meaning of “best elements” wasn’t spelled out as far as I can see, but in essence, they were proposing a “dual education system” where children were split into two streams at 14. “Best elements” seemed to amount to “selection at 14”; if that isn’t what they meant, then I don’t know what they were saying.
According to a BBC report, this was a proposal which didn’t find its way into their manifesto for the 2016 election. However in the leaders’ debates prior to the election, Andrew RT Davies was still making the same vague and unspecific argument for incorporating the “best elements” of the grammar school system into the Welsh education system. Again, if that did not mean splitting pupils into two streams in some shape or form, then I really don’t know what he was talking about.
What they did say in their 2016 manifesto (albeit by implication rather than outright statement) was that they were still wedded to one key element of the 2013 proposals, namely that there should be a new post 14 phase in education allowing the promotion of a more skills-based approach. It sounded to me then, and still does re-reading it today, as though they still intended to introduce some sort of differentiation into two streams at 14, although it wasn’t made clear whether their intention was to achieve that by pupil choice or through some form of selection.
Nothing in their statements this week says that they’ve backtracked on their post 14 proposals. My suspicion is that the apparent opposition to an 11+ exam isn’t the change of heart as which it’s been presented, and certainly isn’t actually opposition to selection at all. Merely changing the age at which selection occurs or the form which that selection takes isn’t the same thing as opposing selection in principle.
There is an underlying ‘truth’ behind the argument for grammar schools, and that is that not all children respond well to a particular approach to learning and not all children have a natural aptitude for all subjects. However, the jump from that to a selective system (or “dual system” to use the Welsh Tories’ preferred euphemism) depends on accepting a number of other much less well-evidenced assumptions, namely:
· That there is a particular age for all children at which this difference becomes apparent
· That it applies to all subjects
· That it cannot be coped with in a single learning institution and requires that children be split into two distinct categories.What the evidence inescapably shows is that, however ‘objective’ the tests used to split children into groups may be, one of the prime determinants of where children in a selective system end up is parental income. It’s not a 100% correlation, of course – a fact which supporters of selection twist into a suggestion that selection supports ‘social mobility’. But for those who are not selected, it actually entrenches social immobility, and it invests more in the education of the selected. I’m not convinced that the Tories’ position this week actually moves them very far from their traditional stance in support of that.